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Poetry of the body

Jochen Schmidt on the rise of young choreographer Marco Goecke

Marco Goecke. Photo: Marcia BreuerMarco Goecke. Photo: Marcia Breuer
The most recent ballet evening put on by the renowned Rotterdam Scapino Ballet was shared by Ed Wuppe, the head of the ensemble, and the young German choreographer Marco Goecke. Wubbe had decided that "poetry" would be the theme for the performance which bore the title "Limbo". But he was the only one who kept to it, creating an eccentric, black and white choreography danced to a choppy poem by Hans Magnus Enzensberger and read by the author himself, about the failure of a relationship "after fourteen years, nine months and two weeks". At the end, when the curtain falls, all that remains is the continually changing stage design by Amber Heij. "What was that?" When things are over it's clear who's had the aesthetic say this evening.

Because Marco Goecke didn't let the theme hold him back. He simply did what he's always done: let his imagination run free. Apart from the title – "The Rest is Silence", a quote from "Hamlet" – the 40 minute choreography has nothing to do with written poetry. It is poetry itself: poetry of the body.

On the empty, dully-lit stage, five women and ten men – mostly facing stage rear and wearing elaborate costumes by Michaela Springer revealing their backs and sometimes their naked breasts – take the audience by surprise with movements the likes of which haven't been seen in ballet for a long time. The piece starts with one dancer doing backwards flip, and ends with another dancer crawling along the floor. Between the two, the performance romps and trembles, undulates, surges and seethes as if the dancers had been bitten by the proverbial tarantula. Rhythmically the choreography swings from high tempo to calm composure. The dancers' arms especially seem to lead their own, fast-paced life. The sound is a mix of Ryan Lawrence's hectic mouth organ, shrill screeches and Stephen Foster's lulling songs. But Goecke has no fear of long moments of silence, while a scene with eight alpenhorns lends a whimsical note.

"The Rest is Silence" performed by
the Scapino Ballet

The piece was greeted with resounding jubilation: a fitting debut for the young choreographer. Goecke, who speaks fluent Dutch after training at the Rotterdam Ballet Academy, is to choreograph one new piece each season for Scapino. And if Stuttgart Ballet director Reid Anderson hadn't got there first and offered him a three-year contract as choreographer in residence, Goecke would have landed a full-time position in Rotterdam. The Stuttgart contract – "Can't turn up your nose at something like that", says Goecke in an interview – commits him to one new production per season for the Stuttgart Ballet, while leaving him enough flexibility to work wherever he likes.

"The Rest is Silence" performed by
the Scapino Ballet

The Stuttgart engagement with its regular salary affords Goecke financial security for the first time in his life. Born in 1972 in Wuppertal, he became interested in dance relatively late. Although he did have connections to the city's dance icon Pina Bausch, these were rather negative at first. When his mother was pregnant she walked out of one of Bausch's early works in a rage. It was winter and the streets were slippery, and she fell down and lay there on the street 'with me inside her'. Twenty years later when she finally heard the story, Pina Bausch offered her condolences.

The idea of becoming a dancer came to Goecke when he was 14, when he saw the film "A Chorus Line". After taking jazz lessons at a private school in Wuppertal, he moved on to formal training at the Institut für Bühnentanz in Cologne, the Ballet Academy in Rotterdam and the Heinz Bosl Foundation in Munich. When he got out his first job took him straight to one of the best ballet companies in Germany: at Berlin's Staatsoper Unter den Linden. But in 1995 under Michael Denard the atmosphere there was "absolutely horrible", and Goecke was soon quickly looking for other work. After a spell of waiting on tables he landed a job in Hagen, in the German provinces. Here he danced for four years, for better or for worse, and at the end he was out of luck once more. When the artistic director changed and his contract ran out, he was just three days short of receiving an indemnity.

"Sweet Sweet Sweet" performed by the Stuttgart Ballet

Nevertheless, thanks to Fritz Hoever and Stuttgart's John Cranko Society he managed to keep his head above water. Things took a turn for the better in September 2002, when he was invited to choreograph a piece for the New York City Ballet. A second order was not long in coming: Peter Boal, then a soloist at ballet, ordered the solo "Mopey" which premiered in New York's Joyce Theatre and was hailed as a 'touching study of alienation" by the New York Times. In the meantime Goecke had won the Prix Dom Perignon in Hamburg, and when Pina Bausch – who had put him on the final shortlist when he auditioned for her company – invited him to her festival in 2004 with "Mopey" and "Blushing", the 33-year-old was in seventh heaven.

Goecke finds his inspiration less in outside sources than inside himself. Even if his works do not exactly correspond to the classical cannon, he sees himself as a ballet and not a dance-theater choreographer. Yet as much as he likes dancing he has now given it up, and even stopped his daily training, a development that is reflected in his waistline. "I can still show dancers what I want," he says, "but I no longer take off my coat when I do."


The article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on January 4, 2006.

Jochen Schmidt is a dance columnist for Die Welt.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european